As I write this column, 2013 is winding toward its close. Like most years in the 21st Century, it was filled with innovations in information. The changes accelerate as time passes. Current undergraduates view the world before the coming of WiFi, iPhones and social media like for those born after electricity was brought to the masses. How did people live before the change? Who cares? Much is being gained, much is being lost. As Charles Dickens put it, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I will recap the year with one gray story, one sunny story and my choice for information professional book of the year.
It is cold and gray today so the negative stories come first. It has been a tough year for academic law librarianship in the United States. The American Bar Association is retooling the guidelines that it publishes to inform law schools of the accreditation requirements that must be satisfied if graduates are to be certified to take the Bar. The old rules, honored only in the breach even in the past, are being diluted in the area of library requirements and the status of law librarians. Once the ideal of the Law Library Director was a professor who was a full member of the Law School Faculty, a peer to academic colleagues; the new vision describes an administrator who operates in a world far away from the intellectual center of the School. The concept of real tenure for academic law librarians becomes a shining artifact of the past.
Colleagues in the private sector may feel little sympathy as they observe this process. Life in the real world has long been tougher than in the towers of academia and the luxury afforded by a tenured spot on a U.S. law school faculty has been viewed with jaundiced eyes by many. But there is both real and symbolic value in these hig- profile positions; losing them reduces the profession. Only a few days ago Associate Dean Phil Berwick, long-time Director of the law library of the Washington University Law School in St. Louis, announced that he is accepting an early retirement package and that his position will be eliminated. Hard cheese ahead.
The December sun breaks through my window, I must revel in the positive developments. Legal information, and intelligent research, are appearing in popular culture. In Michael Connelly’s new novel, The Gods of Guilt, his lawyer-protagonist Mickey Haller, uses PACER with skill on several occasions. He also pulls up in his car outside Starbucks to get the WiFi connection when he needs to do research. Connelly is an immensely popular author, just a step below Grisham. This is a breakthrough. Even in The Good Wife, a popular American television series about a Chicago law firm peopled by exceptionally attractive lawyers, online research and cloud based storage have been part of the storyline. Sadly the firm has no traditional library and not a librarian in sight. But at least there is some information- based integrity.
Finally, her is my choice for fictional book of the year. If you have not yet read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore yet, it is time. The novel includes gems on the history of printing, the design of type-faces, cataloging systems, bookstore operation, the inner life at Google and much else. Little violence appears in the volume and the good guys win! All that and Google too–how could it not be good?
May 2014 be good to all us.